She woke with the words I love you on her tongue, speaking them aloud to an empty room.
They tasted of smoke and ash drifting over a far-distant, muddy field. The War that had taken her lover had lost him. She knew he was dead, because she’d never spoken the words aloud before.
He’d whispered them in her ear countless times—lying side-by-side in the furrows of their sheets, offered on summer days, spoken in the midst of roof-drumming rainstorms keeping her from her dreams. She’d smiled in return, meaning to answer every time. But she found her teeth locked, her lips stitched closed. He would squeeze her hand, echo her smile with sad patience, and say, Some day. When you’re ready.
Ten years passed in a single, conjoined heartbeat. Then news came from beyond the Mountain. The papers were full of men and women dying in rain-battered fields. Her lover read them, and every day carved deeper lines around his mouth, and between his eyes.
Over breakfasts of buttered toast, his untouched, he read to her of mud-spattered corpses, of bright poppies trampled beneath heavy-soled boots, and children crushed the same way, until their skin no longer hid their bones. He read of mass graves, of torture, and atrocities, and leaving grew in his eyes. When she wanted to ask him to stay, fear once more stitched her lips closed.
She held him as long as she could in their house by the sea. But hands pressed to his skin, and stubborn lips and teeth refusing to shape words, could only hold him so long. His love was vast; it encompassed strangers, dying in fields he’d never seen. He went to War. Her love was small, and encompassed only him. She stayed behind.
I love you.
Now she could say the words until her throat bled with them; he would never hear.
Moonlight streamed through the window, illuminating soft-rumpled sheets. She wrapped arms around her body, surveying furniture and knick-knacks that would never mean as much, absent of his hands. She retraced his footsteps; she fit the whorls of her fingertips into the ghost of his touch.
There was nothing to hold her here anymore. No hands pressed to her skin, no words waited to be spoken.
She packed, and left at dawn. The absence of words had lost him, but there was a place she’d heard of in tales where she could drown herself in them. Abandoning the house by the sea, she set out for the Library on the Mountain.
The Librarians shaved her head. They called her Acolyte. They gave her a new name, Alba, which they told her meant dawn. And they assigned her the duty of dusting and caring for the books in the Main Hall.
She never saw the Librarians, only their shapes, buried in deep-hooded robes the color of the sky just before sunrise. They wrote words on slips of paper, and dropped them into her hands. Their instructions given, the Librarians hid their fingers in their voluminous sleeves again, and turned away.
“Wait!” Alba called after them.
The word echoed, vast and terrible, shocking the Library’s silence. She put a hand over her mouth, expecting a hood to drop, baleful eyes to fix her, and a hand to point her back the way she’d come. Instead, a single finger emerged, brief, thin, and pressed to invisible lips inside a hood.
Footsteps made arcane patterns in the dust. The Librarians withdrew, leaving her alone.
Alba memorized the Librarians’ slips of paper—directions to the Main Hall, to a small cell she could call her own, to the Refectory where Acolytes and Novices took their meals. There were other scraps, telling her where she could and could not go. Acolytes were not allowed beyond the Main Hall, the Primary Stacks, and the First Archives. The Reading Rooms, the Second Archives, the Restricted Section, and the Vaults, were for Novices, Apprentices, and Librarians alone.
“Why?” Alba asked her neighbor at one meal.
The dour man, his skin the color of his porridge, glared at her with sunken eyes. He snatched his bowl, and scuttled away, as though Alba’s single word bore the seeds of a plague to infect the Library’s stillness and bring it crashing down. After that meal, Alba never saw him again.
Alba tried to be content with what she was allowed; after all, it wasn’t without wonder. The Main Hall was vast, filled with floor to ceiling shelves, wooden leviathans lit by tall, narrow windows. They held volumes, packed tight, their spines of every color and texture—cloth-bound, leather-bound, and clapped between boards of thin wood tied with rough twine.
Alba dusted, striving to lose herself in repetitive motion, telling herself it was everything she could desire. Still, when she paused to wipe sweat from her brow, she would remember the particular scent of her lover, like sharp spice and incense. She would feel his shirt—heat-damp from a day in the garden—as he put his arms around her. When she ran a hand over the stubble of her hair, she would remember the back of his neck, fresh from a haircut. Once, when she bit her tongue, she remembered the way his would flick out between his teeth at the beginning of a laugh.
Ten years, and never once, and always, always, his patient response: When you’re ready.
She counted books, making her own patterns regardless of the Librarians’ arcane system. She used dust to stop tears. Trailing her fingers across the alternating textures and shades, Alba came to know the books, her books—calf-skin green from linen mauve. Day in and day out, she greeted them as old friends.
And for a while, Alba was content. Until one of her books went missing.
Perhaps she’d miscounted? But, no, more books disappeared each day. The loss tugged at her. She’d come here to sate herself on words, and now they piled up behind her teeth, question on question. This last, the question of where her books had gone, broke the dam.
At the long Refectory tables, scattered with multi-hued light from the stained glass windows, Alba leaned close to the nearest Acolyte. “Have you noticed books missing?”
After so long in silence, the words scraped her throat, but it was a relief to speak. Not even the horror in her dining companion’s eyes could make her regret it.
“No.” The Acolyte pressed his lips tight, returning to his porridge to contemplate the transit of his spoon around the circumference of his bowl.
“Who understands Librarians?” Another Acolyte said; it was the longest reply Alba received.
Mostly the Acolytes and Novices cast their eyes down, and pretended they hadn’t heard. Frustrated, Alba pushed away from the table, leaving her meal half-finished. She glared at the assembled Novices and Acolytes. Didn’t they understand War raged on the other side of the Mountain? Hadn’t they lost loved ones, too?
She wanted to shout, wanted to shake the Library’s foundations, and felt a hypocrite for even thinking it. What right did she have to call words to her defense now? Alba turned on her heel, and stalked away. At the Refectory door, a woman, a Novice by the particular gray of her robe—smoke, rather than dust, as Alba’s, or pre-dawn light, as the Librarians—stopped her.
The Novice’s fingers touched the bones of Alba’s wrist just below her sleeve. Her lips emitted the barest whisper.
Alba leaned close, “What?”
The Novices had perfected the trick of not moving their lips when they spoke. The Apprentices, as Alba understood it, were worse, with a system of Morse code tapped on errant desks and shelves, mouse-foot soft. The Librarians had their scrolls.
“What?” she said again.
She spoke louder this time, reveling in the sound, and the pained look it drew from the Novice’s face. She knew the price of silence, and they would, too.
“Come.” The Novice jerked her head, a frightened fish, startled by a diver cutting the deep.
The Novice’s fingers withdrew from Alba’s skin, and Alba regretted the harshness of her word. The Novice tucked her hands into her sleeves, making a seamless continuum of smoke-gray cloth. She led Alba past the First Archives and the Primary Stacks.
At a plain, wooden door, the Novice put a finger to her lips. Alba’s tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth; she couldn’t have spoken if she had wanted to. The door opened on a garden.
In the middle of winter Mountains, no snow touched delicate branches heavy with blossom and slick, green leaves. Birds, jewel-bright, stitched the air above the courtyard, silent as the rest of the Library. The air smelled of honey-suckle.
“One day, the Library will burn,” the Novice said.
Her voice was hoarse, as though she hadn’t used it in years. She caught Alba’s hands, a touch in place of a plea, and closed her lips tight over her teeth. Alba looked at the long fingers holding hers, and the wrists, almost visible beneath the sleeves. The Novice snatched her hands back, hiding them in smoke-gray again.
“I don’t understand,” Alba said.
“The Library. It will burn. The Library always burns.”
With a tilt of her head, the Novice indicated a bench. They sat.
“Can I trust you?” The Novice glanced at Alba side-wise.
Like a thaw, Alba heard the melt in the Novice’s voice. How many years of silence had she borne? Alba’s pulse thudded, the beat of her heart reaching toward this woman, so afraid of words.
“Don’t you want to know my name, first?” Alba tried a smile.
“Eleuthere,” the Novice said.
“Alba.” Alba touched the Novice’s hand, warm skin against warm skin.
“You asked about the books,” Eleuthere said.
She ducked when she spoke. It was more than fear of words. The Novice hid her hands, and kept her lips over her teeth, everything about her careful. It wasn’t the care of fear, though; it was the care of a woman holding eggshells in her hands, not wanting to break them.
“The Librarians steal the books to save them.” Eleuthere raised her sleeve. Black text, tiny and dense, crowded her skin up to her elbow.
“I found out what the Librarians were doing, and asked them to use me. I wasn’t supposed to tell.”
Alba touched a finger to the words. They shivered, a tiny storm beneath her touch.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The Fifth Song of Solomon. It’s a book.” Eleuthere lowered her sleeve. “They’re all books, the Librarians. They’re making me one, too. The Library will burn, but this way, the books will go on.”
Since arriving here, Alba hadn’t heard so many words, piled one on top of each other. Lightning traced her veins.
“Who would burn a Library?”
“Soldiers.” Eleuthere lowered her gaze, ducking her head again.
The word thudded against Alba’s heart. Her lover, the scent of him, his hands rattling the paper as he read to her the latest horrors of the War. Alba realized she was standing when Eleuthere spoke, standing, too.
“I’ve upset you, I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t.” Alba shook her head, wishing for dust now against rising tears.
Eleuthere reached for her shoulder, but Alba stepped out from under it. “I have to go.”
Her footsteps clattered, clumsy and un-schooled to silence. She ran, paused at the door, and glanced over her shoulder at her.
Words piled up, but once again her lips stitched themselves closed.
Such a simple phrase, but it turned her tongue to lead. Eleuthere opened her mouth, but Alba didn’t dare wait to hear what she had to say.
Eyes stinging, she fled the garden.
Alba counted her sorrow with her books. She ran fingers over multi-colored spines; there were more missing every day. She breathed dust, and let it fill the corners of her eyes. Silence squeezed the breath from her lungs, and threatened to break her bones.
After three days, she sent a note to Eleuthere, passing it hand to hand along the Refectory table under the leaf-scatter light: I’m sorry.
She hoped Eleuthere would give her the chance to say it aloud. The panic that had sent her running from the garden had faded, and she felt foolish. Silence had cost her everything once. She needed words, needed to give them voice, and let them fill the raw corners of her being, leaving no room for regret.
Eleuthere came to her past dusk, past dust, pressing a hand flat to Alba’s door. She didn’t knock. Alba let her into the stone space just big enough to hold a narrow cot. There was nothing else, no mirror to show Alba how gray she’d become, taking on the Library’s hues. There was only a high window, arched, and a fading candle wax-stuck to the sill.
“There’s more,” Eleuthere said.
She pressed her lips against her teeth. The now familiar gesture made Alba realize she’d never seen Eleuthere smile. Alba closed the door. She sat on the bed, leaving space for the Novice. Eleuthere joined her; their knees touched, because there wasn’t room for anything else.
“It’s okay,” Alba said. “It’s safe here.”
“I shouldn’t have come.” Eleuthere started to rise, but Alba caught her hands.
“Stay.” She gripped bony, warm fingers, asking Eleuthere, asking her vanished lover.
Asking him not to go to war, asking the world not to change.
The tension left Eleuthere, and Alba freed one hand, pushing back Eleuthere’s sleeve. She brushed the words with her thumb, reading of mermaids, damned sailors, and shipwrecks.
“There’s more,” Eleuthere said again.
Alba looked up, lips stilling on salty words. Echoes of bird-cry sounded in the stone room, chased by crashing waves. Sea-spray touched her cheek. Eleuthere skinned back her lips. There were minute words carved onto the Novice’s teeth.
Eleuthere stood, and in a smooth motion, pulled smoke-gray robes over her head. She turned, revealing words on naked flesh—here a paragraph on her lower back, there a scroll around her ankle. A sestina spiraling around her breast, a hymn, trailing down her spine, all as full of taste, smell, sound, as the ocean written on her arm.
“It’s beautiful.” Alba breathed out.
“I wanted someone to know.”
With a pained look in her eyes, Eleuthere reached for her robe. Alba caught her inked wrist. Words, so many words, one could never keep silent faced with them. Where Alba’s fingers touched Eleuthere, her skin tingled. Alba traced the text with her gaze, following each line spiraling around Eleuthere’s body until she reached the Novice’s face.
There were words enough to fill the empty spaces, and chase the ache from between her bones. She met Eleuthere’s eyes—black as ink. Eleuthere didn’t pull away; Alba kissed her.
Her tongue traced teeth, gathering the tale of a witch who spent all winter stitching shapes out of skin, and by summer had three fine children. She trailed fingers down spine, learning a dozen names for god. Her palm sweat-slicked the skin on Eleuthere’s lower back, and a poem about drowned children, and little black dogs, and yellow rain boots soaked through her.
Hungry. No, thirsty. She drowned.
She fixed ravenous lips to Eleuthere’s skin. Tales, verse, song—the Library itself—pounded through her, filling her years of not speaking with words sounding of forgiveness.
Alba’s bones reverberated—each rib a shelf, her skin vellum, her blood ink. It built inside her, shivering, humming, until she couldn’t hold it in anymore, and it poured from her in perfect harmony. She sang the Library, sang with volume upon volume of soon-to-be-burned lore.
As the sun rose beyond the high, arched window, Alba laid her head in the hollow between Eleuthere’s shoulder and throat, cheeks wet with tears. “We have to save the Library.”
Alba took Eleuthere’s hand to feel the song of words written on the Novice’s skin. It wasn’t love; that word was gone and done for her. That word was too small, and there were other words to take its place.
“I want to go deeper,” Alba said as they walked the Library’s silent halls. “I want to find the Librarians.”
Eleuthere stopped, Alba’s hand slipping from hers. In this light, Eleuthere’s eyes were the same dust gray as her robe.
“They shouldn’t keep this secret.” Her fingers traced the words on Eleuthere’s arm. “I want to help. If others knew, I’m sure they’d want to help, too.”
Doubt moved like clouds through the Novice’s eyes, but after a moment, she nodded. Whatever conviction had brought Eleuthere here, Alba saw a hint of it now, as the Novice straightened her spine.
“Here.” She led Alba to a wooden door, arched like the one leading into the garden courtyard.
“Is there a key?” Alba asked.
Eleuthere made a sound, almost a sigh, reminding Alba of turning pages.
“Recite a verse.”
A moment of panic seized her. Alba closed her eyes, and tasted Eleuthere’s skin—not the salt of it, but an inky bitterness that made her think of deep sea creatures in lightless places, and stone ground so fine it became like water. The words flooded her tongue, her lips, and Alba spoke them to the lock.
She pushed open the door. Shadows crowded beyond the arch, and stairs went . . . Alba couldn’t tell the direction. Vertigo swept her. She stood on the edge of a precipice, poised to fall; she stood at the base of a mountain, waiting to climb.
Alba put a foot on the first step, fighting the sensation of flying and falling. Eleuthere followed. The steps ended in a room as vast as the Main Hall. Light came from globes—starlight soft—drifting in mid-air, suspended from nothing.
Eleuthere touched Alba’s arm, making her pause. Light caught in the Novice’s eyes, and traced the curve of her mouth. Both were unutterably sad. Eleuthere had forgotten to hide her hands in her sleeves. The words on her skin shone.
“Are you sure you want this?” The empty spaces took Eleuthere’s voice, swallowing it.
Alba could see how years in the Library might take someone’s voice completely. The words here, the words she’d gathered from Eleuthere’s skin, they were too beautiful for all this silence.
“Why?” Alba said.
“You might not like what you see.”
Alba brushed Eleuthere’s arm. Words shivered beneath her palm. Alba imagined the pain of them, carved into the Novice’s flesh.
“Were you sure?” Alba asked.
Eleuthere shook her head. The ink of her eyes, dark again in the room’s soft glow, seemed on the verge of spilling over.
“Are you sure now?”
Eleuthere looked down, lips pressed tight over her teeth, so Alba barely heard her words. “It’s worth it.”
Alba gripped the Novice’s hand. “Show me.”
Eleuthere led her past shelves holding tablets, scrolls, past shelves of etched, delicate glass, and carved blocks of wood. Shadows piled behind and before them; they could never see more than one shelf ahead.
Alba resisted the urge to peer beyond the cluster of globes, searching the shadows for gray-robed Librarians, sleeping upside down like bats.
“How did you find this place?” Alba said.
She glanced at Eleuthere, sidelong. The globes turned the Novice’s head into a moonlit field of stubble.
“I got curious. I explored.” Eleuthere shrugged.
The motion seemed designed to slip her from beneath Alba’s gaze. More silence to regret—Alba had never asked what brought Eleuthere to the Library.
“When I found what the Librarians were doing, I asked them to make me like them.”
“What exactly are they doing?” Alba hadn’t taken her eyes from the Novice, watching her as they passed by shelf after shelf, deeper into twilight reaches. Something in Eleuthere’s voice made her think there was more to the story than the Novice had yet told.
“Saving the books.” Eleuthere pointed. “Any way they can.”
Alba stopped in her tracks, stopped her breath, and nearly her heart. Dead men and women, packed shoulder to shoulder, filled the shelves. They were naked, skin inked-dense. Their eyes were stitched closed, their mouths, too. There were words in the thread.
Some looked ancient, flesh cured as though by ages of desert sand. Others appeared fresh. If not for the stitches binding them, they might open their eyes. Alba’s fingers slipped from Eleuthere’s. She moved closer, wonder-caught, then her heart skittered, missing a beat.
Her lover. Her lover, gone and lost to the war. Her lover, with words inked onto his skin, crowded among the Library’s dead.
His eyes were stitched closed, his hair shorn. Words covered his scalp, circled his throat, dripped down his chest and erased the memory of her palm resting over his heart. He’d become tome, volume. In death, he’d become the Library’s lifeblood—flesh for paper, ink for bones.
Eleuthere’s voice was behind her, a million miles away. Alba had pulled away, running. She skidded to a halt, and stared open-mouthed at her lover. She expected his lips to part, breathe her name, or speak patient-sad as always.
One day. When you’re ready.
Tears blurred her vision. Alba’s palm slapped his feet, her foot finding the shelf below him. She climbed. Eleuthere’s hand caught her ankle. Alba twisted around, kicking out as hard as she could. Eleuthere dodged the blow, and refused to let go.
“They killed him!”
“No.” Eleuthere pulled; Alba slipped.
Her palms, slick with sweat, lost their grip, and she tumbled backward. Eleuthere broke her fall, and they both crashed to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Alba struggled, trying to rise, climb to him again and rip the thread from his lips, kiss them, tell him she was sorry.
Eleuthere wrapped her arms around Alba, pinning her, grip unshakeable.
“Stop.” Eleuthere’s lips next to Alba’s ear stilled her.
She sagged in the Novice’s arms, weeping. “They killed him.”
“No, they collect the dead. The soldiers won’t burn other soldier’s bodies. They’re afraid of vengeful ghosts. The Librarians bring them here, mark them as they mark themselves to keep the books safe.”
Eleuthere rocked Alba as she spoke, smoothing prose-dense palms over Alba’s scalp, her back, her trembling shoulders.
“We can’t just leave him there. We have to get him down.”
Alba’s breath hitched. She couldn’t draw in enough air. There wasn’t enough space beside the grief, beside the guilt. She’d tried to fill herself with words, and it wasn’t enough.
“Who was he?” Eleuthere asked.
“He . . . I loved him.”
The words ripped her open all over again, leaving the wound of him fresh and bleeding.
“He wouldn’t burn a Library.” Alba scrubbed tears from her eyes.
“War changes people.” Eleuthere’s etched teeth showed fierce in the globes’ moon-colored light, her ink black eyes hard.
“You go to war for an ideal, an idea, and it breaks you. You come back a ghost, haunted, dreaming of flame. You come back sick, hating ideas. What are books but ideas? You start to believe if you burn them, it will stop the pain.”
Alba stared at the Novice. The ghost of flames lay deep in the blackest part of Eleuthere’s eyes, ink-drowned, but still there. The Novice lifted her sleeve, bringing the words on her wrist inches from Alba’s face.
“There are scars under the ink,” she said. “I came to the Library to burn it, years ago.”
“You were a soldier.”
“The books, the words, saved me.”
“Show me how?” The words slipped, small and pleading into the space around them.
Eleuthere’s gaze didn’t waver. She lowered her sleeve, unpitying. “I already did.”
Alba caught her breath. Words, singing through her skin, words filling her, burning her to ash, and building her anew. She tried to hold onto the sensation, tried to remember love was small, and these words were vast enough to swallow her whole.
Her heart tripped on memory, regret. She could scale the shelf, pull her lover down, run. She could hide deep in the Mountains.
And live on what? Words never spoken?
The words here lived—shouted onto paper and skin, pressed into her bones with Eleuthere’s hands, with her sweat, with her teeth and tongue. Alba’s books in the Main Hall were crowded with words. Her dead lover was wrapped in them. They were worth speaking; they were worth saving.
“Show me again,” Alba said.
The hardness in Eleuthere’s eyes faded, the fire dimming to smoke again. The corner of her mouth lifted in a smile. She held out a hand, and Alba took it, enfolding herself in Eleuthere’s arms. The Novice’s words sang against her skin.
There is a story they tell, of the day the Library burned, and the day the Library was born. An Acolyte and a Novice became Librarians in the deepest, most secret reaches of the old Library. They returned from those reaches, dust-soaked, sweat-streaked, and shouted into the Library’s silence. They shocked the old Librarian’s hoods from their heads, revealing ink dense skin.
“Look,” they said. “Listen. We will tell you how to save the Library. No more secrets. No more silence. No more fear. These words are for everyone.”
And so they wrote on skin. They carved in teeth. They inked burial shrouds, and mummy wrappings. Where flesh had decayed, they etched in bone. They scrawled on living flesh, too, recorded prose and poetry in the beat of heart and blood.
Not just Librarians, but Novices, Apprentices, and Acolytes. They gathered the living and dead, working feverishly, scorning sleep to breathe poetry, shout verse. They pulled books from the shelves—ancient scrolls, fat leather tomes, skinny cloth-bound volumes, and wooden panels. They piled them high in the Main Hall. They smashed glass globes and clay tablets, breathing in dust. It wasn’t a funeral, but a wake; not a murder, but a celebration.
Hand in hand, inked skin to inked skin, the new Head Librarians stood by the pile they had made. Together, Alba and Eleuthere threw the first match. Not a holocaust, but a pyre—a joyous Viking blaze sending the books spiraling up to the stars. Each Librarian, Novice, Apprentice, and Acolyte threw a match in turn. The books roared; they wept. They laughed. And they sang.
Words danced on sweat-slick skin and flashed from carved teeth. Shedding their robes, naked, the Librarians, Novices, Apprentices, and Acolytes, marched out into the snow, carrying the dead on their backs. Alba’s lover lay draped across her shoulders, his legs bound around her waist, his arms about her chest in a last embrace. Eleuthere walked beside her, holding Alba’s hand. The other denizens of the Library followed behind them.
Laughing, shouting, crying, singing, living and dead, they streamed down the Mountain to meet the soldiers climbing up with torches in their hands.
Wild and fierce, they were Librarians all. Flame lit, they were beautiful. With the dead strapped to their backs, with love and madness in their eyes, they met the soldiers, who stopped, and stood aghast to find the Library already in flame.
The Librarians, who were also books, who were a Library of blood and skin and bones, embraced the stunned soldiers. They touched lip to lip, and breathed tales. They quieted ghosts with song, with fairy stories, with ancient histories, and new philosophies. They poured words from skin to skin; they crowded the empty spaces inside the war-haunted women and men until the ghosts had no choice but to flee.
They lay together in the snow, and their burning skin melted it around them. When the soldiers rose again, they were weeping, and laughing. They were Librarians, too. They joined the parade of mad women and men flowing down the Mountain, carrying words, an unstoppable tide to drown in beauty the world.
That is the legend of the old Library, written in the stones of the new Library, built into the side of a cliff overlooking the sea. The halls there echo with the crash of waves. No one is forbidden to speak in the new Library. There is laughter. The words of the books lining the walls are shouted aloud—Alba and Eleuthere, the Head Librarians, encourage it.
The walls are white stone. The Librarians’ eyes and robes are sea-glass green. The pages of the books taste of salt. They taste of sweat and ink, printed on a lover’s skin. Gathering words on the tongue, straight from the source, is encouraged here, too.
One day, men and women may come with torches in their hands to burn this Library down. But the books, the words, will go on and on.
© 2013 A.C. Wise.